The Mathematics of Love

Being Published Part 3: Permissions

This is the third in a series of posts inspired by my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, which was published in February. In each post I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that each stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here. I've had to get permissions for all my books, starting with various epigraphs and quotes in my fiction. Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction had... Read more →

Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March

I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to... Read more →

Chapter breaks and other joints

A writer friend has said that her book-length manuscript has arrived on the page with scarcely any chapters at all: should she put them in? Terry Pratchett doesn't, says another writer. A fellow workshopper was really bothered by how my novel (The Mathematics of Love, since you ask) had several parts to shape a bigger architecture, but not an equal number of chapters in each. One highly successful writer of light women's fiction doesn't put the chapters in till she's written the whole thing, because only then does she know where they should be. Whereas I plan in chapters right... Read more →


... you put one thing in an essay - your agent says another thing in passing - you remember one of the lives you nearly chose to follow in one of those yellow-wood moments before you decided for something else; your agent says a second thing because of what you said; you remember one of the things you most loved when you were ten; you realise that another childhood love was a place which has been knocking on the doors of your brain for a couple of years now ... - and you have an idea - the first idea... Read more →

Spring Roundup: Pinterest, the Postiversary, and other stories

It must be spring in the air: I'm fantastically busy on various fronts, but some of them might be relevant to all you lovely blog-readers, so here goes. Since October I've been absolutely loving my RLF Fellowship at Goldsmiths; it's been some of the most rewarding and enjoyable teaching I've ever done, so I'm delighted that playwright Annie Caulfield and I will again be there next year. Our job is to help with academic writing across the full spectrum of the College, from first years to PhDs and staff, from Fine Art to Social Work and Anthropology. I am planning... Read more →

6 questions to ask your descriptions

In How Would You Describe It? I was talking about this thing called Description, which seems to get so many beginner-writers worried, and how you can get better at it. But I don't myself have a mental category of writing called Description at all; I just think in terms of Dialogue, and Everything Else - or, more grown-uply, Narration. That's not because evoking places and things isn't important. The places and spaces we live in, and the things we live with, are profoundly important - but notice that they're important because we live in and with them: it's how we... Read more →

Why I'm a convert to Track Changes

You may know that I'm a great fan of working on hard copy; it means you can get away from the computer; with biro on print the original and the amendments go on looking separate and you can see your changes of mind and second thoughts; and you're less likely to get lured into endless, muddly fiddling. Besides, brains are analogue and so is handwriting: and the former can control the latter much more intimately and directly than any process that has to go through a digitising interface, such as letters typed by your digits on a keyboard to appear... Read more →

All the blog posts I mentioned at York 2012, and a big Thank You

I'm just back from the Festival of Writing at York, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, my post from the same point last year is here, and from 2010 is here. Apart from the usual frustration at having been too busy running my own workshops and doing 1-to-1 book doctoring to sit in on any workshops for myself, it was as much frantic, rewarding, alcohol-and-caffeine-fuelled fun as ever. The ducks were a bit quieter - maybe because it's September, not March - but other than that I'm going to need just as long to recover this time.... Read more →

Nothing but the truth

One of the good things about teaching creative writing for the Open University is that I have permanently at my elbow one of the best and most comprehensive writing-courses-in-a-book, Linda Anderson and Derek Neale's Creative Writing, which is the coursebook for A215. But it was a student who mentioned something that the poet W. N. Herbert says, in his chapter on "Theme": There may be a set of subjects we write about which, on examination, share an underlying theme. Like voice, this is better discovered than imposed, but this does not preclude the search. The attempt to address large issues... Read more →

Coming events and courses, Autumn 2011

Well, well, well, it's that busy time of year again. Here's some of what I'm doing, alongside writing a novel, teaching for the Open University, blogging, tweeting, cluttering up the forums at WriteWords... and occasionally remembering to breathe and feed the family. If you're free and feel like coming along, do come and say hello: HAVANT LITERARY FESTIVAL FACT AND FICTION: the role of the historical novelist Thursday 22nd September, 7.30pm, United Reformed Church Hall, Havant How can history be used to illuminate the present? Why did Shakespeare ruin the reputation of Richard III? These and many other questions will... Read more →

Short-legged brunettes also welcome

You'll know by now that I don't believe in "rules" in writing, and point-of-view "rules" are some of the most discussed/agonised-over/struggled with of the lot. Jauss's exploration of point of view and distance is so persuasive that even people who are looking for rules are brought to agree that there's no inherent reason why a first-person narrator can't narrate stuff s/he can't see or wouldn't know. If you follow Jauss, though, you could write things which "break the rules": any individual paragraph may look very like sheer incompetence. So what's a writer to do? You may know why you did... Read more →

Prologues, and other stories

One of the things about doing Book Doctoring, as I'm doing at the Getting Published conference in October, is that you get to see a lot of beginnings of novels. I'm starting to think that a great many aspiring writers believe that a book isn't properly dressed without a prologue. And, to be frank, most of the prologues I see aren't earning their keep. It's not that they're never the right thing (I have one in A Secret Alchemy, and a sort-of one in The Mathematics of Love), only that usually whatever they're supposed to be doing would be better... Read more →

Relax! It's only a synopsis

Your synopsis is not the thing which will make or break your novel's future. It’s the voice, above all, and the characters and storytelling in the sample chapters, which will do that. A synopsis is for showing the big bones of your story: that the main characters' problem is urgent and compelling; that the stakes are raised steadily through the novel; that the engineering of cause-and-effect works; that the end is satisfying. In other word,: you're showing that the plot-route is a good one, but also conveying what will make the reader care about the story-journey. (For more on story... Read more →

A rare insight

I'm in what's for me a rare state: I'm not writing a novel. But the other day I needed something to take to my writer's circle, the Clink Street Writers, for the likes of Sarah Salway, Pam Johnson, Ros Asquith and Michelle Lovric to sink their teeth into. So I did something else which is rare for me: dug out a short story which I wrote about five years ago, and which I never really got right but still think could be got right. It's a story that started as an exercise in a third thing which is rare for... Read more →

A word in your ear

I don't know about you, but I can't imagine writing a novel which was trying to set forward a thesis, or prove a point. Indeed, when I told a literary journalist that one of the themes of The Mathematics of Love turned out to be lost children and she asked me what it says about lost children, I floundered: I hadn't had an argument or a thesis, just an emotional centre for the novel. But the novel I've just finished is the first which has come from an idea. I knew from the first moment that it was going to... Read more →

Keeping up with the Jameses

Someone reading my post In Praise of the Long Sentence recently took issue with one of my examples, taken from un(der)educated, 15-year-old Anna's narrative in The Mathematics of Love: They were tiny of course like all the other negs I'd looked at, but different because I was looking at them in one curling strip and all still wet: clear lavender-coloured shadows and dark skies, trees and pillars and windows and faces caught click after click, coiling and springing down the film one after the other so that all the distance and time between them was pressed into plain, pale bands... Read more →

Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "I'm falling before the first hurdle"

Dear Jerusha - I've been writing for over five years now. The second novel I wrote met with a pretty usual reception: eight rejections, and one request for the full novel which bred only silence in the face of several polite follow-up emails over the next two years. Since then I've written several more, which I haven't been able to face sending out at all. When I finished my most recent novel I summoned up every ounce of courage I had and sent it to two agents. Result: one rejection, one request for the whole MS which I'm sure will... Read more →

Published, unpublished and taking your proof to bed

Over on Sally Quiller's excellent blog, she's been asking why unpublished writers sometimes seem to resent published writers so, when being published, after all, is what they're all trying for. And that set me wondering more widely about the often uncomfortable relationship between those who haven't ever had their name on something that appears in editorially-controlled print or electronica, and those who have. Sally's talking about the feeling that published writers "don't deserve", for example, to be allowed to enter competitions which appear to be chiefly intended for unpublished writers to get a toe on the ladder. (And "published-only" competitions... Read more →

Heisenberg's taste in tapestries

Talking to the Richard III Society today, I was reminded of the moment when I got the answer to the problem of how to write A Secret Alchemy. In a TLS review of two books on the Dark Ages, the reviewer R I Moore said this:Historians have to live with Heisenbergian uncertainty: they cannot simultaneously plot position and trajectory, without distortion. The forces that make for change are always more important for the future, and therefore in retrospect, than they seem at the time… At the time, the blinding light that it shone showed me why I didn't want to... Read more →

Help yourself: the novel-planning grid

A friend has just had feedback from a publisher who wants to buy her book. The main plot is great, but one of the subplots needs to go, and the other doesn't work, so it's a case of cutting one, replacing the other, and knitting the whole book back up together again. Much discussion ensued, because the issue is partly about getting the new stuff right in itself, partly about weaving it into the existing stuff, and partly about making sure she's fished the bones of the old subplot out completely, so that readers don't choke on them. Coloured highlighters... Read more →